My 5-year-old doesn't know much about astrophysics, but she'll cheerfully tell you that a shooting star is not a star, but a meteor — a bit of science trivia that she picked up from an album of children's songs about science by the band They Might be Giants.
The idea of learning science through music is certainly appealing, but does it work? Beyond rote memorization of a catchy chorus line, can it foster real comprehension and long-term retention of scientific material? Can it foster greater interest in learning more?
That's the hope behind some efforts to bring more songs into science class. At singaboutscience.org, for example, teachers can find educational videos that convey scientific content for K-12 students. Going even younger, readers can see my own attempt to teach preschoolers about natural selection, nursery-rhyme style.
But while there's plenty of evidence that instructional media — appropriately used — can improve science instruction, there's not much evidence supporting the pedagogical value of music when it comes to learning science in particular. This gap is what motivated a new paper by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Otago, Dunedin in New Zealand, published in the International Journal of Science Education.
With three studies involving over 1,000 participants and 16 different musical videos about science, the researchers tested the hypothesis that scientific content can be effectively learned through song, and that it might have benefits over instructional videos that are matched for content, but missing the music.
An initial study revealed that students (predominantly ages 8-17) who watched a music video about a scientific domain effectively learned some of the scientific content conveyed in the video, with performance improvements not only for questions that assessed stated content directly, but also those that required deeper comprehension. A second study failed to find that music videos were superior to videos without music when it came to science learning, but they were nonetheless judged more enjoyable.
In the third and most interesting study, the researchers compared the effects of watching a music video about fossils to a video that contained the same content, but without the music or music-video style. Eighty-seven seventh and eighth grade students in New Zealand were randomly assigned to watch one video or the other, and they completed tests assessing their knowledge of fossils before watching the video, immediately after watching the video, and 28 days later.
Both groups showed significant improvements from their initial scores immediately after watching a video, but an interesting trend emerged 28 days later. While those who watched the video without music mostly forgot what they'd learned, the knowledge gleaned from the music video — like the fossils themselves — did a better job sticking around. In other words, the music seemed to help students retain what they learned.
These studies are only preliminary, but they point to the promise of novel approaches to formal science instruction. Incorporating music and other media might not only have mnemonic benefits, but also help make science more accessible and more engaging to a broad range of students.
You can judge for yourself — here's the music video created just for the paper's final study, called Fossil Rock Anthem:
Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo